Does free will exist?

Or are human lives determined by outside factors?

Ain’t I a Woman - Black Women and Feminism

Ain’t I a Woman

This text shines a light on a major gap in feminism and civil rights movements and traces the damaging and pervasive oppression and disregard for black women. She makes visible and clear the struggles of black women in America while also tracing the origins and roots of a dual racial and sexist oppression through slavery and into the 20th century. It is the first major study looking at the intersection of racism and sexism in the lives of black women.

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Annihilation of Caste B.R. Ambedkar

Annihilation of Caste

Annihilation of Caste is an authoritative text about social hierarchy and denial of basic human rights. It discusses how one class constructs political, legal, and social systems through which basic human rights including right to education, occupation, movement, and freedom to consume food of one’s choice is denied to a large section of the society, who then are forced to live in abject poverty. The first and second year students can effortlessly relate to the arguments made by Ambedkar as many of students have experiences discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or class themselves or are aware about these discriminations as they are discussed in news or social media platforms. Faculty should consider using this text as it demonstrates the universal aspect of class division and how different communities have established diverse methods to control one class over another.

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The autobiography of Malcolm X

Autobiography of Malcolm X

This text is about transformation. It chart’s the course of a man’s life from criminality and excess to religious devotion and political activism. Centered in the life of Malcom X is the transformative power of texts. His life emphasises the powerful role authors from the past may play in opening the mind to new ideas and perspectives while encouraging us to take new steps. X’s life also exemplifies the strength required to make transformative changes in one’s own life. His painful break with Elijah Muhammad proivides a moving account of the struggle required to live truthfully, especailly when doing so may result in the expulsion from one’s community and require a reorientation of one’s goals.

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Changes: A Love Story Ama Ata Aidoo

Changes: A Love Story

This is a story about modern African women and their frustration at the status quo where women’s rights are concerned. At the heart of the story is Esi, an educated woman, unhappily married woman, and mother. Esi has a good job that provides the bungalow she and her husband Oko live in with their daughter. After Oko rapes Esi in a desperate attempt to remind her of her place, she divorces him and sends her child to live with his mother, essentially freeing herself from the traditional gender roles.

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Civilization and its Discontents Sigmund Freud

Civilization and its Discontents

Admittedly, Civilization and its Discontents paints a bleak view of the possibilities for both the individual and civilization. In Freud’s view, human beings are caught, seemingly eternally, between a rock and a hard place. But the book itself provides so many opportunities for debate—about religion, which Freud considers a “mass delusion.” About the Arts, which are not something that anyone “would care to put . . . in the background as trivialities” but which are also “useless” and “with no practical value whatever.” About love. About suffering. About addiction. At its core, the book invites a debate about basic human nature—are we capable of transcending aggression? Is our core hostile and selfish?

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Augustine's Confessions


Although much of the narrative of the Confessions happens during Augustine’s time in Italy, this book, so undeniably central to the western canon, is by a writer who was born, grew up, and spent the majority of his career in, Africa. Thus it challenges our conception of where such books originate and our preconceptions about the people who wrote them. It is often called the first autobiography, and presents a remarkable exploration of interiority – questions about the nature of the self, the will, the memory, the intellect, and the soul are central to Augustine’s investigations. Some students are immediately drawn to the beauty of the book as a work of literature, and to the intense self-examination it models.

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Linehan, Katherine, ed. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Norton Critical Edition, Norton, 2003

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is suitable for a variety of community college courses and can be included in units of differing lengths and focuses. A seemingly simple story of approx. 60 pp., the novel has been frequently dismissed as “sensationalist fiction” concerned only with lurid, grisly violence and depravity. Jekyll is, however, an amazingly rich tale of a human who pursues indulgence in unspecified pleasures, vices, or criminal actions while attempting to maintain social respectability in Victorian society. As a result, in addition to literature and composition courses, the text is useful as a basis of discussion in the environments of psychology, sociology, criminology, genetics and physiology, human sexuality, gender studies, LGBTQ+ studies, and others.

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Dubliners, Vintage Classics, New York


These stories can introduce students to the Joycean epiphany, the moment at the end of the stories when a profound truth gets revealed to the characters. At the end of “A Painful Case,” Mr. Duffy “felt that he was alone.” The boy in “Araby” says, “I saw myself a creature driven and derided by vanity.” The boy’s realization is not so different from Jimmy Doyle’s realization of his “folly” at the end of “After the Race,” Little Chandler’s shame and remorse at the end of “A Little Cloud” as he sees the hatred in his wife’s eyes and understands his ineptitude in the domestic life he has chosen over his art, or even Gabriel Conroy’s in “The Dead” seeing himself as “a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous wellmeaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”

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Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals

Kant is notoriously difficult to read and, although it was intended for a more general audience than some of his other works, the Grounding is no exception. Still, the overall goal – to find one, single principle that can be a key to deciding questions of morality – is one that students find relatable. Who hasn’t struggled to find clarity, or wished for a principle about which we could all agree, when considering issues of right and wrong?

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Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible and New Testament

The transformational power of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament is undeniable. Both make claims about the human relationship to the divine, the origins and nature of the world, and the sort of life one ought to live in response to these truths. These texts have shaped entire civilizations and innumerable individual lives, and most students will be aware that much is at stake in discussing them. The challenge in class is make possible a serious engagement that respects the stances taken by a wide variety of students – from those who live within the faith traditions these texts represent, to those who are more or less indifferent to religious truth claims, to those who actively reject them.

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Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Thrift Edition

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

“Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl” addresses the particular issues of being a woman and a slave. Few slave narratives focus on these specific details. Jacobs is writing early Black feminism and bringing the question of Black female empowerment into the feminist conversation that won’t really accept it for quite some time.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

Letter From a Birmingham Jail

In addition to its transformative impact on the civil rights movement, King’s speech also grapples with a timeless human question: is it just to disobey an unjust law? How do you overcome and end oppression? What in fact is the difference between a just and an unjust law? Is it wrong to fight for what is right if you know it will lead to violence?

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Love in The Time of Cholera

This novel is about Love and all its itinerant forms. Unrequited love. Platonic love. Romantic Love. Parental love. Forbidden love. It is about obsession and rejection. It is about the enduring nature of love and of hope. It asks difficult questions about what love is and who is entitled to it. No one walks away from this text not thinking that love is complex and nuanced and dangerous. Marquez presents love as an illness, with many of the same symptoms of Cholera. And the way the characters compartmentalize who they love and the way they love requires that your understanding of the text transcend traditional considerations of what love is.

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Clark, Sandra, and Pamela Mason, eds. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series. Bloomsbury, 2015


Does Macbeth kill Duncan because he is fated to do so, or because he was tempted to do so? Would he have killed Duncan of his own free will without the influence of others? Why do people commit acts that they know are wrong, even when they understand the consequences of these actions? Unlocking such questions for students allows them to engage with some of the central questions about human agency, desire for self-worth and achievement, and the dark, unknowable impulses of all people.

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Mama Day Gloria Naylor

Mama Day

Mama Day explores the concept of home in multiple ways, and in ways that the reader may not be expecting. This novel unlocks the way we think about home, and then forces us to transcend those beliefs. It is also a novel about faith and the life-altering effects faith of any kind can have on our lives. This novel makes readers question the very definition of faith and what true faith can accomplish.

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Euripides, Medea


This is a short, riveting text that takes students directly to topics about human nature in extremity – questions of passion, the relationship between love and hatred, justice and the most severe vengeance extending even to children. It is almost impossible not to react strongly. It is helpful in the classroom that that the beautiful but challenging poetic language and the stylized, unfamiliar character of ancient Greek drama provide enough distance for students to be able to be able to examine the most violent emotions and actions, creating the opportunity for compelling discussion.

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Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Meditations on First Philosophy

The Meditations, by Rene Descartes, is a pivotal text, marking the break between distinctive ancient and modern conceptions of self and world. In the preface to the work, addressed to the Sorbonne, Descartes explicitly states that his goal is to prove the existence of God and the soul. However, the world Descartes recovers after all his doubt is not the one we left behind. Colors are no longer in the object, but are relegated to mere secondary qualities in us. The bodies that inhabit this world are no longer understood through Aristotelian natures, but rather, their essence is captured by their mathematical (geometrical and arithmetical) properties and relations alone. In this way, Descartes sets the metaphysical foundation for the emerging physical sciences of the early modern period.

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Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Dover Thrift, ed.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is the story of humanity. One goal of the slave narrative was to assert the African’s humanity. Douglass’ narrative addresses the important question what it means to be human and who gets to decide that for anybody. This text is a way to get students talking not just about the history of slavery, but about the importance of education, and self-awareness.

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The Odyssey Homer


Discussing The Odyssey is a productive way to begin an undergraduate education. Many first-year students see themselves in Telemachus, who is struggling to find his identity and to establish himself in the world as an independent person, worthy of respect and happiness. This text helps frame the transformative experience of beginning college through a narrative following the personal transformations of many characters. The text productivity raises questions about the conflict between safety and freedom, desire and devotion and helps students weigh their competing priorities as they begin their college journey.

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Paradise Lost John Milton

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost poses one significant question after another: Are our paths predestined or do we have free will? Is knowledge good or dangerous? To what lengths will we go for companionship and what is going too far? What is a righteous ruler and what is tyranny? Is rebellion against tyranny ever permissible or justifiable? What is Hell and what is Paradise? How does a victor emerge in a war between immortals? These are questions without answers, but ones that matter to students and that they relish the opportunity to struggle through. (Actually, Milton makes it pretty clear that a war between immortals will always end in a draw.)

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Plutarch Parallel Lives

Parallel Lives (Selections)

Caesar is a truly compelling character, whose career brought Rome almost to the pinnacle of its power, but also brought about the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Through the prism of his story, students can consider a variety of questions about power, ambition, various forms of government, and the relationship of people and their leaders, that bear upon our current political situation. The narrative draws students in more effectively than most more abstract philosophical consideration of such issues, while the historical distance can also allow a more thoughtful consideration and exchange of views around these issues than may be possible when discussing the contemporary situation more directly.

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Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Vintage Books, New York


Using Sappho is a way to bring into the classroom themes around beauty, longing, loss and subjectivity. There are a number of ways to approach this text. One way would be to situate students in the middle of the fragmentation and rupture within the poems, as described above, in order to think through the jagged and jarring structure of the text, the ways of not knowing who a speaker is, and the silences that are in many ways louder than the actual words on the page.

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The Awakening Kate Chopin

The Awakening

’Yes,’ she said. ‘The Years that are gone seem like dreams-if one might go on sleeping and dreaming- but to wake up and find- oh! Well! Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.(133) Kate Chopin Does free will exist? Who am I? What is love? The Awakening Kate Chopin Free Text “I love you. Good bye- because I love

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Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers

The arguments of Publius are alive today. In 1821, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote of The Federalist Papers, “It is a complete commentary on our constitution; and is appealed to by all parties in the questions to which that instrument has given birth. Its intrinsic merit entitles it to this high rank, and the part two of its authors [i.e., Hamilton and Madison] performed in framing the constitution, put it very much in their power to explain the views with which it was framed.” This view has not waned. The Federalist Papers continue to be cited in US Supreme Court cases as the authoritative interpretation on the original intent of the US Constitution as well as in thousands of law review articles and cases of the lower courts.

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The True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang

The question at the heart of the novel is whether an outlaw is born or made. While Kelly certainly can’t be taken as a wholly trustworthy narrator (he is, after all, writing his own legacy), he makes a compelling argument that poverty, abuse, lack of positive male role models, lack of education, and abuse pushed him into a life of crime. Students will see many parallels in both American popular culture and real life, and the book invites conversations about nurture vs. nature, the importance of supportive social structures for children and young adults, the exercise of free will, justice, and personal responsibility. Further, the novel offers perspectives on rural life, race, heroes and anti-heroes, and culture from an Australian perspective, which could spark discussions about the ways in which these topics are depicted differently or similarly to how they are in the U. S. There is no question that the novel also interrogates history, the writing of history, and the veracity of historical documents.

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